“Come, dowsed in mud, soaked in bleach
as I want you to be
as a trend, as a friend, as an old memory”
Grunge-era folks might recognize that particular set of lyrics from the classic Nirvana song “Come as You Are.” Nirvana’s song oeuvre is full of such layered metaphors, and fans battle to the death about just what any random lyric or song written by Kurt Cobain is about. They will all agree, however, that Cobain was a sensitively tortured poet or some such, and that his obvious pain should be taken into account when looking for another new way to interpret one of his unintelligible mumblings. One inarguable fact about Cobain is that he hated his fame, hated what had been done to a lot of Nirvana’s sounds, and was enraged for some reason about earning the throne of Suburban White Angst King. He had a lot of contempt for his fans because they didn’t like his music the right way. In short, he didn’t seem to be enjoying himself as a rock star.
Somehow I’m supposed to deify this guy as a symbol of everything righteous and true about rock music. Nevermind became the world’s most overexposed rock album upon Cobain’s suicide in 1994, when our selective memories began blocking out a couple of inconvenient truths. Nevermind is credited with returning rock to bare-basic minimalism after ten solid years of shimmering tackiness in which overproduction ruled the day and musical derring-do took a backseat. No disrespect to a very troubled person who ultimately swallowed a gun, but everything Kurt Cobain accomplished with Nevermind had already been done four years earlier by a more objectively talented rock band on a better album. The reason society at large disagrees is because the band’s lead singer, Axl Rose, is still alive and he’s pretty much alienated everyone else who ever did anything important for the band. But Rose’s band, Guns ‘n’ Roses, contained a fiery and charismatic frontman in Rose himself, who has drawn favorable comparisons to none other than Led Zeppelin giant Robert Plant. They had two killer guitarists between Slash and Izzy Stradlin; a cool, laid-back bassist in Duff McKagan; and a destruction-minded, criminally underrated drummer with Steven Adler.
Guns ‘n’ Roses were better at being rock stars. They got it right. They oozed the right attitude while Nirvana moaned and wailed about how their fans weren’t getting the point. They had talent while Nirvana was able to construct songs in ways which disguised the fact that they didn’t. While Nirvana wrote nonsense liberal arts instructors mistook for depth, Guns embraced the devil-may-care hedonism of rock music and exulted it without mistake on their records:
“Wake up late
honey put on your clothes
take your credit card
to the liquor store
that’s one for you and
two for me by tonight”
That lyric is from one of the band’s premier singles, “Nightrain,” from their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, which 25 years after the fact is still their magnum opus.
Appetite for Destruction is the most important album of the last quarter-century as well. A raw, ferocious wall of scorn and fury that thumbs its nose at normal society even as it celebrates parts of it, Appetite for Destruction is a grounded exultation of hedonistic life in the small, dark fringes of society the norms will only ever bother reading about. While Cobain’s anguish from Nevermind was emotional, Rose plonks his listeners into a real, physical world which is all too familiar to those who have lived there. It says a lot that the song I quoted above is named for a brand of fortified wine called Night Train Express as a tribute to it. Appetite for Destruction speaks to the angry bad boys of the world while also saluting those who romanticize their world with one finger.
The opener of Appetite for Destruction, “Welcome to the Jungle,” is one of the most ubiquitous songs on the planet. Rose – who hails from the bustling metropolis of Lafayette, Indiana – wrote the lyrics upon his arrival in Seattle. The song is best known for its thick, lush guitar riffs and catchy hook, and the lyrics are both a beckoning and a foreboding, teasing listeners by saying they’ll be able to find whatever they desire in the ubiquitous city’s bright lights – at a cost.
“Welcome to the jungle
we take it day by day
if you want it you’re gonna bleed
but it’s the price you pay
and you’re a very sexy girl
that’s very hard to please
you can taste the bright lights
but you won’t get them for free”
In the meantime, Axl wants you to know that the jungle is gonna bring you to your knees, feel his serpentine, and make you scream, in that order. It’s just a layered metaphor about a keychain someone gave him before leaving Indiana, I’m sure.
While “Welcome to the Jungle” is (rightly) considered one of the greatest hard rock/heavy metal songs of all time, it’s also one of the weaker and most basic cuts of Appetite for Destruction. The real greatness begins with McKagan’s unique, monotonous, flight-of-the-bumblebee bass riff in the opening of “It’s so Easy,” an ode to one-and-done sex. Misogynist Axl Rose rears his ugly head for the first time in this song. This isn’t casual sex the band plays about here, it’s one-and-done sex with the band’s hangers-on. Women in this song aren’t getting anything in “It’s so Easy” except use as dollar toys, played with, ditched without second glances, and replaced just as easily. It has a rhythm similar to the following song, the laid-back “Nightrain,” which is about nearly every vice except sex. In “Nightrain,” Guns ‘n’ Roses tells you they are and do the following: Bad mothers with rattlesnake suitcases underarm, mean machines who drink gasoline, smoke their cigarettes with style, on the night train, ready to crash and burn, and they’ll never learn!
Axl keeps up his bad boy form with “Out ta Get Me,” doing what’s probably his angriest vocal work on the album. Guns ‘n’ Roses isn’t cool and easygoing in this song. They’re mad because they’re the first ones to blame whenever something goes wrong. The song is about Rose’s legal troubles in Lafayette. Heavy drumwork from Adler compliments the guitar exchanges of Slash and Stradlin as Rose defiantly brags that the cops will never catch him or break him. He’s innocent, and as he sings at the end, they can suck him and take that to heart!
Next up: Drugs! Hard stuff too, as the song title “Mr. Brownstone” is slang for heroin. Although one might be fooled by the chorus reference to dancing with Mr. Brownstone and the lighthearted step notes on guitar, there’s no mistaking what this song is about:
“I used to do a little
but a little wouldn’t do
so the little got more and more
I just keep tryin’
to get a little better
said a little better than before”
If anyone doesn’t know “Welcome to the Jungle,” it’s a safe bet they know Appetite for Destruction’s most popular single, “Paradise City.” Although the lyrics Slash originally wanted for the song were voted down, Slash calls “Paradise City” his favorite Guns ‘n’ Roses song. The hook is easily the best known part of the song, a rising guitar crescendo as Axl belts:
“Take me down to the paradise city
where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”
The verses, however, are a contrast to the chorus instead of a compliment. They take a sort of jump back to the beginning of the album. The lyrics tell about a man who’s surviving poor, pushing toward the paradise of the chorus, and the guitar is a lot more gravelly. The song concludes with a loud all-out jam.
“My Michelle” and “Think About You” are both a lot more frantic. Both are about women, the former a middle finger to one woman and the latter an odd love letter to another. “Sweet Child O’Mine” is also about a woman. Although it was a popular single, it was also the worst song on the album. The lead guitar riff has the feel of Christmas music with an edge. Axl’s emotional vocals make up some of the strength lost in the music and show us a soft side of him lost amidst the rest of the album. It’s the black sheep of Appetite for Destruction. Where the rest of the album is angry and gritty, this song is warm and sweet. Although Slash gets his piece with a solo, it’s one of his predictable solos, and the edge he brings only makes it weirder and more out of place.
“You’re Crazy,” “Anything Goes,” and “Rocket Queen” close out the album. They all bring back the frantic pace of earlier songs. Like typical closers, they’re weaker than the rest of the album, but they’re all nonetheless gems.
Although Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler all sure as hell make their contributions, Appetite for Destruction is the starmaking vehicle of Axl Rose and Slash. Axl has a very rare vocal range as a singer, and he can convey the highest highs and lowest lows. Rose’s emotion is genuine, and he can hit a note for every feeling. Slash is one of the most versatile guitarists who ever lived. Together, they have the chemistry necessary for alchemy. The subject matter of the album is a composite of hedonism among the people who are barely noticed or cared for and can therefore get away with it. It’s hardscrabble stuff without the romanticism. But in musical form, it’s glorious and powerful. Let the intelligentsia keep claiming how Nirvana speaks for them and debating over the meaning of “On a Plain.” Appetite for Destruction is for the people who have actually been through the jungle.